Wahiawā Kilani Avenue Food Crawl

Nostalgia and new-school meet on a half-mile stretch in Wahiawā.

 

Full disclosure: You’re about to read a review of Wahiawā food establishments written by a guy from Wahiawā—specifically, a guy who lived for decades on the very street this article is about. It’s like Shawn Michaels refereeing the HHH/Undertaker match at WrestleMania 28. I may be a little biased, is my point. That said, Kilani Avenue is, without hyperbole, the greatest food street in the known universe.

 

Shige’s Saimin Stand

Shiges Saimin Exterior Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

Shige’s Saimin Stand isn’t technically on Kilani Avenue. That’s right, one paragraph in and I already betrayed the whole premise of this article. For years, I lived in a house off Kilani that was a three-minute walk from Shige’s (tried and tested many times over), so I argue that it’s close enough. Plus, I think it’s against the law to exclude Shige’s when writing about popular Wahiawā restaurants, and I can’t go back to jail.

 

My parents are from Haleʻiwa, and when I was born, we relocated to a two-story apartment building on Kilani Avenue. (Foreshadowing!) Like me, Shige’s also has roots on the North Shore. (Segue!) Owners Ross and JoAnn Shigeoka were inspired to give the restaurant business a try by Ross’ grandparents, who operated Nakai’s Saimin in Haleʻiwa back in the 50s.

 

Shiges Fried Saimin Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Fried saimin at Shige’s. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

You can always tell a Shige’s saimin by the flat shape of the noodles, made in-house at 5:30 every morning. Aside from a few plate lunches and curry and miso saimin/udon options, the menu has remained largely unchanged since their opening in March of 1990. My usual order remains largely unchanged as well. First, the fried saimin ($8.95): green onions and strips of egg, Spam, char siu and fishcake provide a flavorful texture complement to the perfectly firm chew of those flat noodles.

 

Shiges Saimin Burger Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Double cheeseburger. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

Then, the double cheeseburger ($4.40): Sure, you can get onion and tomato in the deluxe, but all I need with those tender, juicy hamburger patties, cheese, ketchup and mayo is lettuce. Oh, and buns. And the classic yellow wrapper that becomes transparent over time.

 

70 Kukui St., (808) 621-362, @shigessaiminstand

 


 

Dot’s Wahiawā (closed)

Dots In Wahiawa Sign Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

Whenever I would take my three-minute walks to Shige’s in the evenings, I would sometimes catch the sounds of live jazz music floating through the chilly air from nearby Dot’s Restaurant. Hearing “Watermelon Man” while walking past an H&R Block is a very specific kind of feels. The nights are quieter these days.

 

Scott Harada’s great-aunt Marian Harada and her brother Kenneth opened the first iteration of Dot’s Restaurant—an amusement center—in 1946. They soon incorporated the rest of the family into the fold, and the business evolved over the years into a ballroom/bar/dining room and catering business named after Marian. In 1982, Scott’s father took over, until around two years ago, when Scott succeeded him, and almost immediately faced the impossible task of navigating a catering and event business through a pandemic lockdown, followed by the unenviable decision so many longtime family restaurants have had to make.

 

Dots In Wahiawa Entrance Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

He recalls instantly the date the doors closed for good: March 16, 2020. The plan at the time was to try and weather the storm. Dot’s was his baby, and he was determined to keep holding on. But six months into lockdown with no end in sight, Scott had to reassess where to focus attention and energy. Marian’s Catering remodeled into a plate lunch grab-and-go, and he began to explore options for the unused space.

 

Enter Central Oahu Event Center, operated by Wahiawā-born Daryl Akiyoshi and his partner Allison Sato. Daryl found out about the closure like most—on the internet. After some introspection, he realized he didn’t want to regret passing up the opportunity to return to his roots. He connected with Scott and found there were shared family ties, and a shared sense of loyalty to the town they were from. Enlisting the help of chef Jim Gillespie, with whom Daryl shared success at Koʻolau Ballrooms, the group set out to revitalize the iconic property with a new identity: Mango Street Grill. Renovations began inside, and they started grilling up meals in a tent outside. Daryl says that every day, people come up to ask who they are, and if Dot’s is coming back.

 

Dots In Wahiawa Banquet Hall Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

Scott admits that dialogue with the community has been heart-wrenching, on social media and especially with the regulars. It was an unimaginable, quiet end to a 75-year run. Organization of a final goodbye was considered, but ultimately the timing felt inappropriate. He has been gently asking former customers to transfer their consideration to Mango Street Grill, while assuring that Marian’s Catering, now back to a limited catering capacity, isn’t going anywhere. Scott adds that he is still the owner and steward of the Dot’s name and brand, but for now, his hope is to step back and take some time to better understand the family story and history.

 

I’ve had more than my fair share of Dot’s sizzling hamburger steaks, always with the tin cup of pudding afterward, of course. It was worth the scene it caused as the skillet wound its way through the dining room. Dot’s was the quintessential old-school Hawaiʻi restaurant. There was green carpet that I assume was the original from the ’40s, a touchscreen jukebox and shoji (doors, not Dave). The adjacent lounge was a perpetual nightly Leilehua High School reunion. It had, as Scott himself puts it, a saltiness to it. It belonged to the town. Years ago, a friend proposed to his girlfriend in the banquet hall. They’re now married, with one daughter. In early March of 2020, I attended a large gathering in that hall, during which there were whispers of whether or not we really needed to worry about coronavirus. Many of my childhood friends were there, and one of them brought his parents. His mother, a tough woman who practiced tough love and beat cancer, made the best pastele, and when we were kids, she tried to teach me how to tread water in a pool. She died unexpectedly just five months later, and the Dot’s banquet hall was the last time I ever saw her. For me, Dot’s represents a much simpler time, in so many ways.

 

Nothing can quite fill the hole a place like Dot’s leaves, but thanks to Mango Street Grill, Wahiawā has someplace new to gather, and the corner of Kilani and Mango is once again alive.

 

130 Mango St., permanently closed; check @mangostreetgrill for updates from Dot’s successor eatery.

 


 

Barrio Café

Barrio Exterior Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

That two-story apartment building on Kilani I mentioned earlier once had a barber shop on the ground floor. Long gone, that space is now occupied by Barrio Café. Opened in 2017, it may be the new kid on the block, but its owner, Miriam Oliva, is neither a stranger to Wahiawā nor to Mexican restaurants—or to Mexican restaurants in Wahiawā, for that matter. Her mother runs the longtime establishment at the gateway to Wahiawā, El Palenque.

 

Encouraged by her mother to set out on her own (“Moms are always right,” Miriam says), after nights sitting at Zippy’s brainstorming a menu, Miriam decided to take the leap, focusing on breakfasts. I would make my first visit to Barrio Café for this article. Miriam generously opened her doors on an off day and gave me a sampling of three menu items.

 

Barrio Mexi Loco Moco Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Barrio Café’s Mexi-Loco Moco. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

The Mexi-Loco Moco ($12) is made with her husband’s award-winning green chili over rice, with cream, pico de gallo, egg and queso fresco. The chili has a pleasant, warm spice, balanced by the cream.

 

Barrio Chorizo rice Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Chorizo rice at Barrio. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

The chorizo rice ($12) is a take on local breakfast fried rice, except it’s so popular, they can’t use day-old rice to make it as is tradition—there’s never any left over. The chorizo, house-made and soon available for purchase, is lean, flavorful and not dripping with orange oil, like you may be accustomed to.

 

Barrio Horchata Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Horchata. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

If you like horchata (I do), and you like coffee (I do), then you will really enjoy the horchata iced coffee ($5, and I did). The combination just makes sense.

 

Side note: Poni and Brandon Askew of Street Grindz, old friends of mine and the organizers of the Eat the Street food truck rallies, have a burgeoning vinegar shop next door to the left of Barrio Café. I recommend the mango.

 

672 Kilani Ave., (808) 622-3003, barriocafe808.com@barriocafe808

 


 

Kilani Bakery

Kilani Bakery Exterior Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

Next door and to the right of Barrio Café stands Kilani Bakery, the source of many of my life’s breakfasts and desserts. OK, some lunches and dinners too. If you know Kilani Bakery, then you know their brownies: tender, off-black sticks with chopped walnuts, blanketed in powdered sugar. But I grew up loving the stick donut ($1.65) and bread pudding ($1.65) the most.

 

Kilani Bakery Stick Donut Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Stick donuts. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

A stick donut is basically a donut hole shish kebab. If we’re being honest, I like to dip the whole thing in milk and eat it straight off the skewer like a monster. The bread pudding is a firm block of custard and raisins and nostalgia, and the lucky ones get the edge piece with the thick, crisp crust.

 

Kilani Bakery Bread Pudding Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Bread pudding at Kilani Bakery. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

Walter Takara worked as a baker at 9th Avenue Bakery in Kaimukī, owned by Chosei Zukeran. There, he learned all the secrets of the trade and met his future wife—Chosei’s daughter, Beatrice. They would later move to Wahiawā, and on Aug. 16, 1959, Walter and Beatrice opened Kilani Bakery. Walter passed away in 2014 and Beatrice is retired, but their sons Sidney and Jeffery have taken over, with hopes that one day, Sidney’s children will take the reins. While the next generations may choose to take the bakery in a different direction, a decision was made to keep things old-school for the time being, keeping true to what they have been known for over the past six decades. So the menu has stayed more or less the same, using Walter’s recipes.

 

704 Kilani Ave., (808) 621-5662, @kilanibakery

 


 

Sunnyside

Sunnyside Exterior Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

A few years ago, Sunnyside shut its doors. On their last day of operation, in an attempt to draw out the goodbye, I got one more double-crust banana pie and put it in the freezer. That lasted all of a few months, when it was hastily thawed out and eaten. Which reminds me—I gotta get cracking on that Kāne‘ohe Bakery pumpkin custard pie I have in there. Anyway, in 2020, when so many other businesses were closing for good, Sunnyside re-emerged, with a facelift and original pies in tow.

 

Sunnyside Banana Pie Pc Jesse Macadangdang

The banana pie. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

The interior is brand new and lively. Picture windows lined with succulents have replaced the jalousies. The old window to the kitchen is now a wide-open counter. Some things haven’t changed, though. The fried rice special ($8.50) with hot dog and egg over-easy is still the move. The double-crust banana pie ($3 a slice, $15 whole), buttery and dense with fruit, is still the best on the island (yeah, I said it). And if you’re eating in, you’re still responsible for bringing your plate and utensils up to the counter when you’re done—cleaning up after yourself, you know, like an adult.

 

Sunnyside Fried Rice Special Pc Jesse Macadangdang

Fried rice special. Photo: Jesse Macadangdang

 

1017 Kilani Ave., (808) 622-3663 @sunnysideinc

 


 

Wahiawā tends to get a bad rap. I get it. I was walking down the street when a woman on a bike yelled to a man riding his bike in the opposite direction, “Eh! You going to da game room?” But when I asked business owners what’s kept them going through the pandemic, every single one gave credit, without hesitation, to the community. That doesn’t happen in a bad town. Take a turn just before you cross the Karsten Thot Bridge and you’ll see. Even if I haven’t sold you on Kilani Avenue (more pies for me), do your local business owners a solid and get takeout from your favorite neighborhood place for dinner tonight. And maybe get your eggs from Peterson’s Upland Farm.